The rural independents and their electorates

One argument made by conservative commentators in the aftermath of the inconclusive 2010 Australian election is that the three rural independents should support the Coalition because a majority of voters in their electorates support the Coalition as demonstrated by the Senate vote. Paleoconservative Paul Sheehan is particularly vehement on this and with characteristic misogyny accuses them of being ‘prostitutes’ (to Sheehan women working for living is deserving of moral condemnation).  This campaign has been backed up polls in the independents’  electorates purporting to show majority support for an Abbott government. However the historical evidence suggests that voter support for independent candidates has surprisingly little relation to the choices made by those independents when they hold the balance of power. Three Victorian Independents in 1999 supported Labor against the partisan preference of their electorates, 2 were comfortably re-elected at the 2002 election and the defeat of the third was largely due to the redistribution (if she had run as a Labor candidate she would have won). Liz Cumingham in Queensland enabled the minority Coalition government 1996-98 but has continued to hold an electorate which would be safe Labor in her absence. The crucial question perhaps is the extent to which a government polarizes public opinion. Steve Bracks in Victoria after 1999 governed skilfully from the centre, Rob Borbridge in Queensland governed ineptly from the centre. Neither were polarizing. NSW is an exception, although the 1988 election returned a majority Coalition government there were 3 conservative independents elected from normally safe Labor electorates in Wollongong and Newcastle who gave general support to the Coalition. At the 1991 election the policies of the Coalition government inspired a return to Labor by traditional supporters who had strayed in 1988 and the independents were all defeated. A Gillard government supported by the Independents is unlucky to inspire public polarisation (although could it be that federal politics is inherently more polarising?).

The 1940 election has attracted some commentary as the last case of a hung federal parliament.  However nobody has observed that just as the parliamentary left is currently divided between Labor, the Green and (presumably) Wilkie the parliamentary left in 1940 was also divided. Labor has 32 seats but there were 4 held by ‘Non-Communist Labor’ the second Langite breakaway party in NSW. The two independents were both clearly aligned with the conservative side of politics, more so than the current rural trio. G.J. Coles in Henty was not opposed by the United Australia Party in 1940 and by June 1941 declared to Menzies his undying support.  Until Menzies was overthrown Coles looked to be following the footsteps of Percy Spender, elected in 1937 as an independent in opposition to the official UAP candidate and government minister Archdale Parkhill, Spender joined the UAP after election and went on to a long career in UAP and Liberal politics. The downfall of Menzies is as  baffling to the historian as that of Kevin Rudd?  In 1940 Alex Wilson from Wimmera represented the Victorian Country Party whose relation to the federal Country Party has some similarities to that of the West Australian Nationals and the federal Nationals today. The independents eventually shifted their support to Labor and in 1943 both were easily reelected even although both of their seats returned to the conservatives at by-elections in 1945. Coles was appointed by Labor as the first chairman of the Australian National Airlines Commission, he was pleased to lead state enterprise in competitive market but told Chifley he would not had served a government monopoly. Coles deserves a biography. Are the current country independents in in analogous position to those ‘blue-dog’ American Democrats who represent districts that vote Republican at presidential elections such as Gene Taylor, some of these Democrats even throw in some anti-free trade populism. Until now they have survived despite voting for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

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